Chekhov, When He Was Hot:Kline Burns Bright in Ivanov

There are a number of good reasons to see the Lincoln Center Theater production of Ivanov , Anton Chekhov’s first full-length play. Kevin Kline’s performance as the suicidal Ivanov reminds us that greatness is within his confident grasp. If only he would act more in theater, not forgettable movies! There are three other wonderful performances illuminating the little-known play, which is more of a disturbing, half-farcical melodrama from the later supreme dramatist of naturalism. The reticence of Chekhov’s four subsequent masterpieces is absent, but this is a chance to see his early work, and it shouldn’t be missed.

Ivanov has become fashionable. It was revived successfully with Ralph Fiennes in London last season, and David Hare’s lively new adaptation has helped its cause. A great play? Chekhov was never completely satisfied with it and rewrote it as if it nagged at him. But as Mr. Hare points out: “There are ways in which a site of first literary struggles provides an infinitely richer experience for the audience than many a cooler, supposedly more mature play.”

Ivanov is a hot, un-Chekhovian drama in the sense that its passions boil openly on the surface, the futility of life unrestrained. The traditional Russian ennui, melancholy, boredom-“Life is so boring!”-the stagnating fatigue of it all, have never brimmed with such vitality! Nikolai Ivanov is a burnt-out case at war with his own emptiness, a Hamlet raging against the role. There are no villains, no angels in Ivanov , as Chekhov always saw life-complicated, messy life. There are near-saints (Ivanov’s dying wife, Anna) and fools, of course. But his brooding, cruel hero tests our sense of fairness.

We would be tempted to stand in judgment of a man who, after all, confesses to his sick devoted wife that he no longer loves her and, in one explosive scene, calls her “a dirty Jew.” Ivanov is a Russian landowner on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He might be the first clinically depressed antihero. At 40, he appears crushed by the weight of life, unable to connect, without faith or ideals-a spineless shadow of his younger self.

In a devastating Act 2 scene in which Mr. Kline scales the emotional peaks with great dignity, Ivanov looks back to his youth and weeps. “The inspiration was there. I sat every night at my desk. I felt the poetry of the evening from the sun’s going down to the sun’s rising. I worked through the night in the quiet, and I dreamed. I looked into the future like a child looking into its mother’s eyes. But now … I search for faith, I spend days and nights in idleness, in doing-nothingness, my mind, my body in permanent revolt. I look out of the window: My estate is in ruins, and my forests are under the ax. It needs me. The land needs me. And I have no hope, no expectation. My sense of tomorrow is gone.”

If this is “immature” Chekhov, let’s have him! His extraordinary Ivanov is both sympathetic and not. He is a man who has already died. “All I have left, the thing that burns, that never stops burning, is the shame, the shame that now turns to anger …”

In Chekhov’s surprising plot-surprising for its portrait of gentrified Russian anti-Semitism-Ivanov has an adoring Jewish wife, Anna Petrovna, née Sarah Abramson, who’s dying of tuberculosis. She gave up her inheritance and faith to marry him. But instead of caring for his wife, Ivanov spends his time with Sasha, the young, lovesick daughter of a banker. “If you climb a mountain,” she tells him, “I’ll climb with you. Jump over the cliff, I’ll jump.” Silly Sasha …

When Anna dies, Ivanov and Sasha are to be married. Chekhov’s melodrama treads on thin ice when the troubled bridegroom shoots himself on the wedding day. A preferable end, at least, to the original version, in which the righteous, “honest” Dr. Lvov denounces Ivanov so violently that he dies of shock! But if we look beyond the surface clumsiness of Chekhov’s youthful narrative, the real drama is between protagonists battling with honesty and lies.

Ivanov, for whom life has lost all meaning, must confront the truth about his own shame. His lesser, cruel honesty is that he tells his wife callously that he doesn’t love her. The hectoring prig Dr. Lvov is, in his presumptuous way, a specialist in “honesty,” like the bore who’s always cruel to be kind. The dying Anna, who sacrificed all for love, must face the fact that Ivanov no longer even cares for her. Sasha, who’s about to sacrifice all, must stop playing the savior. Even the adorable old Lebedev is compelled to be honest about his skinflint bag of a wife. “I wish to God,” says this dearest of men, out of earshot as the old battle-ax exits, “you’d just die.”

We have major performances in addition to Mr. Kline’s, and they make the evening a pleasure. Hope Davis, who must surely be among the finest young actresses in America, is incapable of hitting a false note as a Sasha who’s stupid for love and finally wrecked. Jayne Atkinson’s Anna is perfect in her utterly natural stoicism and yearning, and she, too, has established herself as one of our most versatile actresses. If the great character acting of Max Wright has gone largely uncelebrated until now, that will come to a happy end. His Lebedev, the henpecked embodiment of pickled exasperation and lovable decency, steals the show. Actors have their moment, and this is the good Mr. Wright’s.

There are flaws. There usually are. Rob Campbell’s Dr. Lvov is no serious match-as he must be-for Mr. Kline’s brooding, desperate Ivanov. It’s a most difficult role to play, but the indignation of the lecturing, egotistical doctor is too generalized here, making him appear merely foolish. No one has ever accused Marian Seldes of underacting. It’s good to see her play the ridiculous society hostess, Zinaida, but she and others need to tone down the party scenes a bit. If it’s trees, it must be John Lee Beatty. Mr. Beatty’s trees-whether designed for the Poconos of Neil Simon’s Proposals , or for the estate of Chekhov’s Nikolai Ivanov-are growing too familiar.

But, except in one crucial, un-American area, Gerald Gutierrez’s production is far superior to the Sovremennik Theater Company’s recent performance of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard on Broadway. That wouldn’t be too difficult-though the Russian production has been mostly praised to the skies. It struck me-shockingly-as poorly produced and overacted, as if it were both locked in time and ridiculously modernized. Entire essays have been written about the renowned Russian actors who have played the small, essential role of the doddering old servant, Firs. He’s the emblem of that play. But in the Sovremennik’s wayward version, he was played by a chic-looking Russian actor who might have been the maître d’ at the Ritz.

The American Chekhov is far better than the Russian, as I say-except in its Russianness! Mr. Gutierrez and company respect Ivanov , but they are a little in orbit. The Russian company disrespected The Cherry Orchard , but they know in their bones how to embrace it. The fluidity of Chekhov-the second-by-second aliveness even of despair-is his lifeblood. The Ivanov production can be too careful that way. It tiptoes cautiously at times, marking the mood of each scene overconscientiously. With Chekhov, you must know how to behave in Russian, which is to understand how to laugh and cry simultaneously. To achieve that miracle, it helps to be Russian, or to throw caution to the wind.

Chekhov, When He Was Hot:Kline Burns Bright in Ivanov